A brief loss of consciousness, memory problems, confusion, dizziness, headache, nausea and vomiting are all symptoms of a concussion. Anyone could understand how debilitating that could be. Yet imagine if those symptoms lingered for months, or even years? What if those symptoms never subsided at all? Could you still work at your job? Luckily for most of us, we don’t have to deal with such challenges on a daily basis. Concussions are a huge issue in sports, especially as medical science appears to find out more about the potential long-term effects such injuries have in regards to the early onset of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other diseases. While concussion awareness continues to grow, there are still much that is not quite understood by the medical community. Laws in the United States have mandated that all High School athletes take pro-active measures to educate families about the risks of concussions and how to determine if one has occurred. Even if an athlete is even suspected of having a concussion they are sat out of games and practices until a doctor medically clears them.
As a coach of a High School contact sport, these precautions can at times appear overbearing or extreme. When you consider the symptoms listed above could be the result of a great many things and may not mean a concussion at all. While these precautions have been made with the health of the athletes in mind it also is with legal liability in mind. So maybe it should come as no surprise that professional sports like football and hockey have seen a few different class action lawsuits regarding concussions. Recently, a new group of players led by former New York Islander Chris Ferraro and ex-Wild forward Dan Fritsche have filed a lawsuit that the NHL regularly exposed players to unnecessary risk of sustaining serious trauma to the head of the body (i.e brain) by encouraging violent play. Should the Minnesota Wild and other NHL teams be concerned about lawsuits like this? How culpable are they?
In this article reported by NBC Sports’ James O’Brien, the lawsuit filed by Ferraro and Fritsche not only claims the league has promoted violence but downplayed those risks in discussions with the players. Needless to say these are very serious allegations. So far the two players are the only ones named in the present claim, but they are to have said to have potentially 100 other players willing to join them in a class action suit against the NHL for a sum of something more than $5 million. But before we do that, let’s examine those two claims that Ferraro and Fritsche’s suit have made.
Does the NHL promote a culture of violence? Anyone who has gone to an NHL game or regularly watches NHL Network is often shown the Top 10 Hits of the Week during stoppages and intermissions. The league certainly likes to showcase its big body checks, so I guess in that way you could say the league promotes a certain level of violence. Yet teams also choose to exhibit a few fight videos during stoppages or in their pre-game montage to get the fans riled up. I’ll admit it, I enjoy hockey fights and big body checks as do lots of fans but does that force players to play that style of game in an effort to please their bosses and the home crowd? For some players, its part of the role they play for their respective clubs but does that not include a willful choice on their part? I guess my best answer to this question is yes, for the most part it does promote a particular culture of violence. The NHL Network‘s nightly highlights show typically does not exhibit a lot of fights but it does show some and that could certainly be construed as promotion of some kind.
Did the NHL knowingly hold back information from the players about the long-term effects of concussions as the suit claims? This is where I am still waiting for some sort of ‘smoking gun’ type of memorandum / E-mail from the league instructing teams to try to minimize the concern about concussions to its players. Has there been video or other corroborated proof that teams forced players to play with a concussion? Not that I’ve seen, and this is the kind of information that would give the players solid ground for a significant financial reward. So far there has been a lot of pointed fingers, but virtually nothing in this category.
A few other things sort of bother me about many of the players who have attached their names to these class action suits regarding the league and concussions. In most of the lawsuits, the claimants have been mainly tough guys who had less than 100 games in the league. So if these players played most of their careers outside the NHL why aren’t they naming those leagues in their suits? Another point of contention, while players have cried foul about the league not doing enough about concussions etc. Where is the NHLPA on this? Why have former players sought their own council rather than work through the players union to apply pressure on the league? Could it be because the NHLPA realizes their membership knowingly accepts at least some of the risk each and every time they play. Concussions and head trauma certainly are not just because of fighting. Players get hurt on perfectly legal hits and accidental collisions often. I find it difficult to be able to put all of the liability on the league when the players know that the game involves and element of danger.
I truly do empathize with former players like ex-Wild winger Cam Stewart, whose career was ended by a concussion that had lasting effects to his quality of life. For those of you that are not familiar with Stewart’s time with the Wild he played 54 games with the team during its inaugural season in 2000-01. He was a hard charging winger who loved to dish out hits playing on the Wild’s 3rd line but his game’s hallmark would be his undoing. Stewart would suffer a concussion in a 2001 pre-season game against the Edmonton Oilers he took a vicious but legal hit from Scott Ferguson; and would never play hockey again. He found himself struggling with severe headaches, memory loss and nausea from even the most minimal activity. It was months before he could stand for periods longer than 30 minutes before feeling so dizzy that he’d have to sit down. But concussions were nothing new to Stewart who suffered 8 documented concussions over the course of his NHL career. Yet in multiple interviews given since his retirement from the NHL, Stewart did not sound bitter or like he played the game without accepting some of the risk.
Yet how is this affecting teams? According to the Denver Post‘s Adrian Dater, teams have become very quiet since the first lawsuits began to appear right around the Olympic break as he wrote in his article here. Dater believes the league is going to eventually reach some sort of settlement similar to that of the NFL (who settled for a cool $765 million). The NHL certainly does not have that kind of money lying around. When you consider just about any NHL team has had some players leave the game for the effects of post-concussion syndrome you can understand why they are not talking. Afterall, this is the same league that has set the gold standard for vagueness in regards to reporting injuries with the classic “upper body”, “lower body” responses to media inquiries. One thing seems certain so far with these concussion lawsuits, there likely will be more of them filed until the league appeases them with some kind of monetary reward.
How concerned should the Wild be? Probably as much as any other organization. Afterall the Wild have had to deal with their list of concussions over the years. Most notably, Pierre-Marc Bouchard who missed 66 games with concussion issues over the course of course of two seasons which irrevocably damaged his standing with the team. The Wild, as well as other teams afterwards felt they couldn’t invest in long contract with a player who seemed one hit from another long stint of battling post-concussion syndrome. But is that the Wild’s or even the NHL’s fault? I don’t think so. When Chris Pronger decided to erase Dean McAmmond with a vicious elbow to the head during the Stanley Cup Playoffs back in 2007, is not Pronger far more culpable than his current team at the time of the incident, the Anaheim Ducks?
“We can no longer ignore the stupidity of the hits that are still happening today despite the fact the players know the concussion aspect is such a big part of the game and sports in general.” ~ Jeremy Roenick as told to NHL.com, (Dec.14th, 2011)
I think any athlete of virtually any sport, especially those that involve lots of physical contact recognizes there is a potential for injury. These athletes understand that they could even sustain severe injuries that may have significant consequences to a person’s quality of life. As a High School coach I’ve witnessed first-hand multiple athletes who required major knee (or knee ligament) reconstruction, compound fractures, spinal injuries as well as numerous concussions to the extent where some could no longer participate in sports ever again. It is terribly unfortunate for these athletes and I think it’s a tragedy for anyone to have their quality of life so tremendously altered for participating in a game that they love. Yet they willfully choose to put themselves in jeopardy either for the enjoyment of that activity. Professional athletes also willfully choose to do the same not just because of the fun of playing that sport they excel at but for the monetary and material rewards that come along with it. Life and a person’s health is not always equal to your peers. For some even a relatively light collision can leave a person concussed, while others can be absolutely rocked and be none the worse for the wear. It’s not always someone else’s fault either, as the old saying goes, “When you point the finger you have 3 other fingers pointing back at yourself.” Its time some of these players recognize that.